Thousands fled India-controlled Kashmir. Are they better off in Pakistan?
Some 35,000 Kashmiris fled from Indian-controlled Kashmir during the 1990s to settle in Pakistan, a country that has not yet granted citizenship to up to 40 percent of the migrants.
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Only 1 percent of the total population of Kashmir claims to have been able to visit friends of relatives on the other side in the last five years, according to a recent poll by the Chatham House think tank in London.Skip to next paragraph
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Having left behind their possessions, almost none of the migrants have been able to return to meet loved-ones, and some have not even been able to afford to make telephone contact. The much-touted bus service between the two Kashmirs, launched as part of peace efforts between India and Pakistan in 2005, is “just for show” they say, as bureaucratic hurdles make travel impossible for the common man.
A people without a home, 'it's like we don't exist'
At the Manak Piyan camp at Muzaffarabad, home to some 2,000 migrants, a school teacher who asked not to be named because of his past membership in a militant group supported by Pakistani intelligence, says: “Nobody wants to take responsibility for us, it’s like we don’t exist." Before fleeing India, the teacher studied at the Srinagar SP college.
He finally got his ID card seven years ago, after a long struggle with red tape. Some members of the community petitioned the High Court in 2005 for citizenship rights, but the court’s ruling extended only as far as a few dozen individual cases. Other migrants were granted citizenship in 2006 in the run-up to the Azad Jammu Kashmir state elections, in what some felt was a cynical ploy by politicians to garner votes.
Mir Abdul Rasheed Abbasi, a member of the AJK parliament, acknowledged delays in granting citizenship to the migrants but said that poor record keeping and fraudulent petitions for benefits are partly responsible.
The school teacher and other migrants here say they once fought India as members of the Inter Services Intelligence backed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. He says he was taken to Khost in Afghanistan for training under the command of pro-Pakistan Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He walks with a prosthetic left leg after hitting a landmine during one of his sorties with militants back into Indian administered Kashmir.
Not your average jihadi
But he is not a run-of-the-mill jihadi: He is a staunch supporter of women’s right to education and work. He also says he is especially grateful for the work of Christian charities in the region and simply wants the world to recognize his struggle. “Our right to fight the occupying forces is guaranteed under the United Nations Charter,” he says, adding: “We want to go back home but we are hostages to our situation. Though we respect the people of AJK, their government does not favor us.”
Many within the camps still hold out hope for an independent Kashmir, and view armed struggle as necessary. Some find they do not fit in Pakistan because of cultural and linguistic differences – migrants speak the Kashmiri language whereas many of the locals speak a dialect of Punjabi. Some migrants are too proud to accept a Pakistani ID, says Lucas of Pax Christi. The community itself is not classed as "refugee camp" by the UNHCR.
For these reasons, Lucas says that her organization, along with Pakistan's Mass Welfare Foundation, hopes to “stimulate the debate amongst the migrants (about) what future they want for themselves.”
Similarities can be drawn between the plight of the Kashmiri migrants in AJK to the struggle of the "Kashmiri Pandits" – Kashmiri Hindus of Brahmin heritage, who were driven out of Indian administered Kashmir en masse during the uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Up to 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits are believed to be displaced.
“Groups like these tend to become exploited for propaganda purposes. The Indian establishment chose to use the Pandits as proof of the racist oppression of Muslim Kashmiris, to put them forward and say ‘these are the victims of Islamic terrorism,’ ” says Lucas.
“Pakistan has so far not exploited the Kashmiri migrants in a similar way, and this is very commendable,” she says. “But that might also be to avoid drawing attention to the conditions in which they are living in the camps.”